Monday, August 29, 2011

founded on the celebrated papers

As I was writing about personal book lists in the last post I thought of Philip Pullman, who put a list of his own together for the British book chain Waterstones -- they've had a couple of them but Pullman's was the one I remembered because he had Anatomy of Melancholy on there, and I'd been thinking about the Anatomy of Melancholy, as you know if you've read back a bit, which perhaps you haven't and instead you've been swimming, like Tim Winton, or working as the people up the road do, collecting cans and crushing them into sacks, repetitive work, but I'd rather crush cans with them than be one of the homeless men who sit in car parks with scavenged clothes and other goods set out on trestle tables; and no one envies these men because the heat out there is somewhere over forty degrees Celsius and has been at that approximate temperature for days.

They must be stiff with sweat these men, first sweating and then the sweat drying, and then sweating again over the dried sweat, and then sweating again, living in their geographical layers like those Elizabethans who never took more than one bath a year, and so we see them out there in the carparks, these men who live like Queen Elizabeth the First, though she did not have to deal with forty degree heat -- their problems are foreign to her, and yet there's no reason why they would not write poetry as she did.

O Fortune! how thy restless wavering State
     Hath fraught with Cares my troubled Wit!
Witness this present Prison whither Fate
     Hath borne me, and the Joys I quit.
Thou causedest the Guilty to be loosed
From Bands, wherewith are Innocents inclosed;
     Causing the Guiltless to be strait reserved,
     And freeing those that Death had well deserved:
But by her Envy can be nothing wrought,
So God send to my Foes all they have thought.

She wrote that verse in 1554 while she was kept prisoner in the Gatehouse at Woodstock Manor, and also three lines on a window --

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth ELIZABETH prisoner.

-- engraving them into the glass with a diamond because ordinary writing materials were taken from her, but the homeless have no diamonds, nor do they have windows, and so you see how people are muffled by their poverty, yet she was ingenious to use a diamond and so why not they with other objects? She was not using a diamond, she was using a tool. Yesterday I passed a man who was selling a plastic candy jar three-quarters full of things that looked like doorknobs. There's something she never had. Modern life is a panorama of opportunities, and, as is often observed, the average First World individual lives more comfortably than those who used to call themselves queens and princes.

A Dickens would look at them and go away to write something like his description of the Monmouth Street secondhand clothes-dealers in Sketches by Boz (but adapting the place-names): "We have always entertained a particular attachment towards Monmouth-street [the local carpark], as the only true and real emporium for second-hand wearing apparel ... Through every alteration and every change, the local carpark has still remained the burial-place of the fashions; and such, to judge from all present appearances, it will remain until there are no more fashions to bury.

We love to walk among these extensive groves of the illustrious dead, and to indulge in the speculations to which they give rise; now fitting a deceased coat, then a dead pair of trousers, and anon the mortal remains of a gaudy waistcoat, upon some being of our own conjuring up, and endeavouring, from the shape and fashion of the garment itself, to bring its former owner before our mind’s eye. We have gone on speculating in this way, until whole rows of coats have started from their pegs, and buttoned up, of their own accord, round the waists of imaginary wearers; lines of trousers have jumped down to meet them; waistcoats have almost burst with anxiety to put themselves on; and half an acre of shoes have suddenly found feet to fit them, and gone stumping down the street with a noise which has fairly awakened us from our pleasant reverie, and driven us slowly away, with a bewildered stare, an object of astonishment to the good people of the local carpark, and of no slight suspicion to the policemen at the opposite street corner.

Then every reader would see animation pent up in those limp clothes and they would respect the homeless zookeepers who guard them, baking there for hours next to their scavenged radios, watching the denim that waits on the tables like hyaenas, preparing to inflate itself with ghostly flesh and race away snarling as soon as it can -- coats growing teeth and tusks, and jeans with dried salt across the backs of the thighs in layers like a million dead seas, those seabeds dropping fossils as they run .... or Elizabeth Jolley might write about these men but she would try to enclose them in a building first, because her people, though homeless and wandering in spirit, have usually been shut into some piece of property, an old age home, or a boarding house, or even their own farms, "running," writes Helen Garner, through all her books "is the strong connecting tissue of land, land, land: the obsession with the ownership of land, the toiling and the self-denial and the saving for it."

Which comes down to the bare problem of being in a body, because all bodies need to be somewhere, either farm or carpark, and the logistics of manoeuvering this thing around are a problem for us all: poor flesh.

But to get back to my point, I was reminded that the personal book-canon can be a lot of things, it can be a piece of advertising, and not only advertising for yourself but for other objects as well. In the case of Pullman and Waterstones it was advertising both a man and a book shop, with the author offered the chance to advertise his loves and the shop advertising its wares, which happen to be also his loves.

Advertising will grasp anything, it will take art movements, revolutions, jokes, dictatorships, calender dates, and events that have nothing to do with the objects being sold; but the brain of advertising has tentacles everywhere and sees a straight line where others see curves; it can't see surrealism but there's a reason for that. In the mailbox this morning I found a piece of junk mail from a supermarket, and "Back to School Savings" was printed on the front, black over yellow, with a row of pencils lined up on each side of the phrase, but because it was a supermarket the goods being sold on special were incongruous onions and cuts of meat: chuck steak, cantaloupes, chicken drumsticks, and bread -- melón chino, piernitas de pollo, pan de barra said this bilingual sheet -- and what is the kid going to do with a cantaloupe at school I wonder, what are they going to do with a bag of raw chicken drumsticks -- here they come into the classroom smeared with blood, making works in pink watercolour on the door handles -- and how can one thing be associated with another so strangely like that, bread with school, oh, simple (says advertising) I put the word here, "school" and then I put a photograph of bread next to it, and like this the magic is done.

Which is why advertising can't see surrealism.

Last night as I was reading Claire Tomalin's biography of Nelly Ternan, the actress who was the love of Dickens' later life, I came across the playbills she'd had reproduced for the book, whole posters advertising goods even more transient than cantaloupe and chicken drumsticks -- they advertised one single night of theatrical sketches each.

These performance came and went in a few hours, faster than the lives of mayflies.

One of them was "an entirely original, ironical Burletta of Man and Manners, in two acts (founded on the celebrated papers by "Boz,") called / NICHOLAS NICKLEBY;" / Or, Doings at Do-the-Boys Hall," which was due to be carried out "This evening, TUESDAY, Dec. 18. 1838" and never in that way again. (Somewhere in the past people are sitting in a splintery hall, waiting for Mr G. TAYLOR as Ralph Nickleby and Miss RICHARDS in "her first appearance here" as Kate Nickleby, they lean forward, they eat an apple, I can see it all. A thought: theatres do not have windows. Is this the picture that was going through the heads of the people who decided that North American schools should be windowless? The classroom is a theatre or opera house, and the teacher is a jealous performer who does not want to share the stage with the outside world. A poster for the first day of school: "The Science Teacher, Miss BIDDELL (her first appearance here) / After which A PAS DE DEUX by The HEADMASTER and A STUDENT")

Tomalin points out that Dickens hadn't finished writing Nickleby yet on Tuesday, Dec. 18. 1838, but never mind; the actors made up an ending. I came to the page where the Ternan sisters meet the man himself during the production of his stage collaboration with Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep, and then I put the book down and fell asleep, because sleep at that moment was more tempting than books. Today I'll resume the book but I won't resume sleep until later, I will fall asleep at a point in time no earlier than ten o'clock at night and probably far afterwards, and do we go back into sleep as if it is a book, I wonder, is that the experience we might feel if we were aware of it, picking up at the paragraph of sleep where we put it down?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

if I know one thing better than another

Meanwhile Holbrook Jackson talks about book collectors, and bookworms, and people who love to bind their books, and people who love to assemble libraries of books they never read, and impoverished people who spend their money on books instead of food, and people who will decorate a wall with false bookshelves, but this Bibliomania of his was published initially in 1930 and when I'd finished it I realised that he hadn't mentioned lists of books, which today are everywhere, and then I wondered if I should say to myself, "That's proof the book is old, people didn't publish book lists back then, they didn't make a big thing of them," or if I should say, "They did exist and he forgot them," but instead I wavered and said: "In this respect I am not adequately informed about the habits of bookpersons; I do not know," which only confirms the usefulness of knowledgeable books like Holbrook Jackson's.

1001 Books to Read Before You Die, is one of the lists I'm thinking of, and then there's the ones you see on blogs or just online: My Favourite Books, My Desert Island Books, My TBR Pile, Books I Bought Recently, My Latest Library Haul, Books On My Shelf, and Reading Challenges (the Cat Book Challenge, the Daphne du Maurier Challenge, the Scandinavian Reading Challenge, the Modern Library Reading Challenge, the Essay Reading Challenge, the Art History Reading Challenge, the Read Your Name Challenge for which "the challenge is to read your name in book title first letters, ultimately spelling out your name," and more)* until it seems that if the world was made for nothing more than the production of a book as Mallarmé said, then books were made for the making of lists of books, and that, faced with the great spreading-out of viewpoints that books represent, the reaction is to apply a focus, as we try to make the sun more useful by putting it through a magnifying glass and setting an ant on fire.

A search for focus, for accuracy, for measurement -- huge measurements if the list is a Great Literature canon, and measurement on the micro scale if it's one of those personal canons, like the one Junot Díaz gave to his Oscar Wao, although from the point of view of a person, which is the point of view we all have, I think it's the other way around, and the macro foreground is the personal canon, acquired with our own labour, and the background, the more minor thing, is the Great Literature canon, which exists somewhere like a cloud on a mountain (glance up and there it is, the cloth on the rock, and this, say the Capetonians, came about after a pirate had a smoking competition with the devil -- and likewise the Great Books canon is assembled out of other people's huff-and-puffing work), and phantom university professors might flit by your shoulders shrieking at you if you haven't read Candide (Nick Hornby suffers from that vision) but I think you can neglect the cultural canon in ways you can't neglect the personal canon, the personal canon nestling close to the heart, discovered by you, and the other one existing mystically, outside, like the neighbourhood outside your window, into which you step, but in which you do not live (as John Berger would like you to live) -- no, you live inside your house, among your furniture. Lord of the Rings is part of Wao's furniture; he's furnished the house himself, he puts his books in order solemnly, setting up this secret name or hieroglyph, on which he might meditate as Berger meditates on one of his landscape paintings: "It is only its shortcomings that fascinate me. In these I can see the possibilities of a more accurate metaphor: I can feel all that has escaped me."

The painting is a disguised arrow, pointing to the landscape he has seen and to the idea of himself seeing it, it is the painting not of a tree or a hill but of his viewpoint and contained in that painting invisibly is John Berger, sitting in nature with a paintbrush and possibly a folding chair, both eyes open. "John Berger is not blind," says the painting. "In case you thought he was."**

The private canon, pointing to the personality of the owner, is charged with meaning when the owner looks at it, although other people might grin. "Lord of the Rings? Then he's just a run of the mill fantasy geek," an ignorant boy, this Wao kid, suckled on the obvious. "He hasn't even bothered to go searching for unusual fantasy novels, he's just grabbed the big fat blatant one."

-- the world says, staring at the Wao bookshelves. "I like fantasy," it adds, "but eclectic fantasy please, I like to dig a little, you know what I mean? I have taste. I like Lud-in-the-Mist. Hope Mirrlees. Older than Tolkien. Nineteen twenty-six!" I stare at people's bookshelves, and I feel closer to them when I see a book I know, although I wonder what they think of it; something different to me probably, and so we are apart after all.

The personal canon or the desert island book list is another face for yourself, built by yourself, not the one nature happens to have given you, no, I'll do my own, and stick it together out of the debris I've come across, Wao might say, this fortress and this signboard, yes, Lord of the Rings here and the Dragonlance novels there -- and these are scraps that I will solder together, selecting and discarding (only the first two Dragonlance trilogies, not the later books), and with them I will build a cyborg part, or addendum, which will reach out into the world like a tentacle, directed by myself but not made of flesh, my new hand, waving to strangers and saying, "Hello, I'm here," or, as I watch, picking up a pin that was too small for my natural fingers. If Holbrook Jackson's people had met Nell from The Haunting of Hill House they would have wanted to cure her with books: if I know one thing better than another I know this, that my books know me and love me, he quotes from Eugene Field, and better a library than a monstrous house.

The reader knows that Nell hears the Bibliomania people calling to her, because her excuse, when she tries to explain to Dr Montague why she has been running out of her room at night in a haunted house, is, "I came down to the library to get a book" -- which she offers up as proof of absolute sanity.

* Examples: My Favourite Books, My Desert Island Books, My TBR Pile, Books I Bought Recently, My Latest Library Haul, Books On My Shelf, a page of Reading Challenges, and 1001 Books to Read Before you Die.

** Of course this means that if you own a realistic painting, a landscape or a portrait, then there is an invisible painter sitting on your table or standing on the kitchen counter, or hovering around whatever room the painting is in, exchanging a constant gaze with the artwork, staring ferociously at your wall, and you walk through this person, or put plates through them, or something like that, every time you move in front of the painting. My aunt has two photographers eyeballing walls in her dining room.

Friday, August 26, 2011

so radiantly set out with rings and jewels, lawns, scarves, laces, gold

I went from Holbrook Jackson's Anatomy of Bibliomania to a book of essays by John Berger, a whiplash change of viewpoint, since Berger is a Marxist who hopes that one day a revolution will reduce the desire of human beings for private property, and Jackson is a bookman -- "bookman" is the word he likes -- who spends six hundred and forty-six pages singing glory hallelujah to personal libraries. Anatomy itself is a covetable item of private property, I know, because I wanted to buy it at Powell's in Portland once upon a time, after I found it on a shelf under a window, hardbacked and blue and noted in the margins, and I hung over it like a moon of love, but the book was marked at twenty-five dollars and covetousness never made anyone rich, and so the one I read was a library copy.

He's imitating the Anatomy of Melancholy, as you can see by the title, and he splits his examination of the bibliomaniac into different categories, as Robert Burton did, so that a chapter that opens with The Misfortune of Books is separated into I. Trials and Tribulations, II. Books Lost and Found, III. Neglect and Misuse, IV. Perils of Fire and Water, and the chapter called A Digression of Book Worms is divided into I. A Common Enemy in Every Age, II., The Legendary Bookworm, III. The Bookworm and His Several Variations, IV. Nomenclature and Classification, V. How The Bookworm Discovered America -- etc -- and he fillets quotations into his sentences with Burtonish italics, like this:

Some would have them be microcosms, embracing all life: the making of Shakespeare's mind was the making of the world. Books, said William Wordsworth, are a substantial world both pure and good. Leigh Hunt would have that they are half of the known world, the globe we inhabit being divisible into two worlds: the common geographical world, and the world of books; and he holds further, they are such real things, that, if habit and perception make the difference between real and unreal, we may say that we frequently wake out of common life to them, than out of them to common life. Stephen Mallarmé cries that the world was made for nothing more than to produce a beautiful book, which some even among good bookmen may account a heresy ...

("The making of Shakespeare's mind …" came from Gathered Leaves by Mary E. Coleridge and this fact is in one of Jackson's footnotes.)*

The book is a rush of voices culled and organised and sub-organised and then organised again, clipped off in mid-flow however the author wants, both rabble and order, the author as supervisor or cat-herder, commenting on the personalities of the cats ("and though I adventure to affirm nothing of the truth and certainty of this supposition," adds Jackson at the end of the sentence quote above, "yet I must needs say, it does not seem to me unreasonable") though he doesn't rhapsodise as much as Burton sometimes did,** and he doesn't express himself in lists, while Burton was an author who, overrun by the atmosphere of babble, listed and babbled himself, chucking himself into the stream and babbling more than anyone, a man who fought in two directions, a man saying, "There are too many raindrops to count," and then trying to count them -- lists, lists: -- setting up obstacles for himself and clawing his way over them: -- like this: -- "she," he writes, "was so radiantly set out with rings and jewels, lawns, scarves, laces, gold, spangles, and gaudy devices …" and "For besides fear and sorrow, which is common to all melancholy, anxiety of mind, suspicion, aggravation, restless thoughts, paleness, meagreness, neglect of business, and the like, these men are farther yet misaffected …" and, "Parents and such as have the tuition and oversight of children, offend many times in that they are too stern, always threatening, chiding, brawling, whipping, or striking," and, "For in the head, as there be several parts, so there be divers grievances, which according to that division of Heurnius, (which he takes out of Arculanus,) are inward or outward (to omit all others which pertain to eyes and ears, nostrils, gums, teeth, mouth, palate, tongue, weezle, chops, face, &c.) belonging properly to the brain, as baldness, falling of hair, furfur, lice, &c" -- and then kept expanding his book whenever a new edition came out, well, you might say, there are always more words, some lose their wits by terrible objects, he claims. In this labyrinth of accidental causes, the farther I wander, the more intricate I find the passage, multae ambages , and new causes as so many by-paths offer themselves to be discussed: to search out all, were an Herculean work, and fitter for Theseus: I will follow mine intended thread; and point only at some few of the chiefest.

A zoo of words, a marshalling of ornament, this arrangement of verbs and nouns as if they were objects on a shelf, and this intimation of flood, of flooding; every time he begins a new list he starts us on a road that could go on for twenty lines or end after only three examples, a rollercoastery and exhausting way of writing -- exhausting for the reader, who is suspended in a state of excited and deranged vigilance, never knowing what the writer is going to do next, he might veer off into another list, he might come to a sudden halt and chop the list short with "&c." All writing asks for dominance over the reader but Burton makes the dominance obvious. The book is all dominance, this ragbag encyclopaedia, a Johnsonian exercise, a hysteric maintaining his hysteria.

Johnson used to rise early to read him. "It is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation," he told Boswell. "But there is great spirit and great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind."

* You can find it here, with an introduction by Edith Sichel.

FOR most people there is a beginning and an end. It is important to recall that they were born, and that they died at such and such a date. But to say of Mary Coleridge that she was born in September 1861, that she lived nearly forty-six years, and died in August 1907, means little. She was never of any age, and excepting that as life went on she grew and ripened, she was much the same at twenty as at forty.

** eg. "Expect a little, confer future and times past with the present, see the event and comfort thyself with it. It is as well to be discerned in commonwealths, cities, families, as in private men's estates. Italy was once lord of the world, Rome the queen of cities, vaunted herself of two myriads of inhabitants; now that all-commanding country is possessed by petty princes, Rome a small village in respect. Greece of old the seat of civility, mother of sciences and humanity, now forlorn, the nurse of barbarians, a den of thieves. Germany then, saith Tacitus, was incult and horrid, now full of magnificent cities: Athens, Corinth, Carthage, how flourishing cities! now buried in their own ruins: corrorum ferarum, aprorum et bestiarum lustra, like so many wildernesses, a receptacle of wild beasts. Venice, a poor fisher-town, Paris, London, small cottages in Ceasar's time, now most notable emporiums."

Monday, August 22, 2011

small seeking sounds, feeling the edges

In this post I am going to give away the endings to The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both by Shirley Jackson.

I walked home today, past the 99c Store, past the vacant lots where the stunted mesquite trees grow here and there like ferns, past the broken plastic, the blue dumpsters, the men with shopping trolleys who hook their stomachs over the sides of the blue dumpsters, the Mexicans on wooden stools who crush aluminium cans under a set of pine trees, and I came in, and sat down at the computer, and when I saw a Venn diagram online I began to picture one of Henry James' books as a large circle with small circles pressing against the outside and overlapping slightly in each place, and the book itself was the large circle and the subjects of his metaphors, allusions, etc, the spectre of the judgmental anonymous they who make Lady Agnes wonder if her house is mentionable, were the smaller circles, all coming in from the outside, like spermatozoa to a huge egg, always reminding it of themselves, as metaphors do, and intersecting with it everywhere so that it was trapped, in danger of leaking.

But The Haunting of Hill House was simpler, and it was a pair of circles overlapping in the middle, normally Venn-wise, and one of the circles was the character Nell or Eleanor, and the other was Hill House itself, and by the end of the book Nell is living completely in the overlap at the centre, which represents a point of extreme solitude, this upright I with its sharp angles top and bottom and no space inside to lie down or be comfortable -- she is always standing and always alone.

I've read House recently, and one of Shirley Jackson's other books, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and in both cases the story ended in a unification between two parties, like this, and in both cases the unification is preceded by violence, in both cases the outside world seems hostile, and yet the mood of each ending is different. Nell and Hill House make a cold marriage, despairing and cruel, but in Castle the two sisters have decided that they love one another so much that they want to stay together until they die, walling themselves off from the rest of the world, which comes to them and leaves baskets of eggs on the doorstep, or calls out to them in an angry voice then goes away frustrated when they don't reply, treating them like totemic witches or madwomen.

This is an idyllic ending, I think, because life for both of them was going to be so disastrous otherwise that staying together in the kitchen of their burnt-out mansion, deep in love and eating jam, is the best thing that could have happened to them, and may we all have such good relationships with our siblings, even when they are mass poisoners and leave arsenic in the sugar bowl.

But it is a creepy ending, some say (I've been skimming online reviews), this closed-off partnership between unusual sisters, one mad, one gentle, but love between unusual people is the same happy ending whose nonachievement we cry about in Phantom of the Opera and King Kong, so sad, we say, so sad, he was such a tragic figure, yet when it happens in Castle, it's creepy. People don't know what they want, I swear.

Nell is lonely, but she was not born lonely, as Hill House was born lonely, "by itself against its hills," and she was not built warped, as the house was built warped. She learnt to be lonely during the years she spent caring for her sick mother. Nell "had no friends," says Jackson, and although for a while she thinks she might have made some this idea turns out to be a failed hope, she is too self-critical and shy to make friends, she reacts awkwardly when Theodora tries to praise her or paint her toenails, and this Hill House adventure, which was going to be the liberation of a brand new Nell ("I have at last taken a step," she thinks as she is driving to the house, believing that she is breaking free, more steps will follow, the rest of her life is approaching) instead confirms that she does not have a knack for togetherness, she is natively alone, and through a procedure of supernatural hauntings and social missteps she inches closer into an intimacy with the lonely house and its freezing doorway and its eerie cherubs and its vanishing black dog and the bodiless booming noise in the hallway: "the crashing came again, and Eleanor and Theodora saw the wood of the door tremble and shake."

She wavers, as humans waver, but the house does not. The house never relinquishes its malevolence. It does not change mood. It is itself, like a character in Peake going to the Cool Room. Like a Peake character it has a massive presence. Jackson's other characters are thin when you compare them to the house; her Dr Montague is the stock figure of a professor, and Luke is not much more than a gesture in the direction of a flippant young man. He's a piece of wood with the word BANTER nailed on the front. If Swelter or Countess Gertrude appeared among Jackson's characters, they would dominate them as firmly as the house does. These characters are thin because they are tools, the author's tools, and once they have helped her to unite Nell with the house she flicks them away in two sentences.

Hill House is "not kind" she tells us, but it loves Nell better than the author loves Dr Montague.

Nell is unable to make friends without discarding the loneliness that has become her essence or her armour. She won't or can't discard it. Yet she wants friends, she wants to be part of the group, and at the same time she wants her own house, she wants to live behind a set of walls, isolated and private, she wants togetherness and isolation one after the other, a problem that the house may have solved for her when it brings her into itself at the end of the book, and she becomes a haunting spirit, inhabiting that Venn diagram overlap. "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality," Jackson says in the first line of the book, and Nell has to go mad before the house can eat her up, she hears a voice inside her head, she talks to statues, and what has ruined her sanity? She has realised that she is alone.

Perhaps now she is no longer being pulled in two directions, perhaps she has become inhuman in her inner harmony, entering a nirvana of ghosthood. The sisters at the end of Castle have reached a sunnier unity. Never again will they have to choose between their home and the outside world. Constance will not be tempted by the idea of boyfriends. This is the acme of a decisive ending -- all problems are solved. But Jackson has made the situation terrible. All problems are solved, but now nobody can escape the solution. The solution is insoluble.

Nell wants what the monsters outside my bedroom door wanted, she wants to come in and be part of things, as I did too when I was starting school, confronted with other children in the playground who had it in their power to say, "Go away, we don't want you." Spare us from, "Go away, we don't want you," but Nell is never spared. She buckles under the nightmare of all children. It is friendship or death with her in the end, this huge and crucial value put on friends by a person who never has any. "Good bye," she says to her associates, not friends, on the second last page, "Good bye, good bye," though it is the last time that she will ever say good bye to anybody, because if any of them visit the house after this then she will be trying to come in to their rooms, banging and rattling, or laughing, or doing some other terrifying thing -- "pattings came from around the doorframe, small seeking sounds, feeling the edges of the door, trying to sneak a way in" -- and what was a child like me supposed to do when adults are capable of behaving like that?

Away she drives to Hill House as if off to adulthood, free from her mother at last, and failure finds her quickly, she is tempted, she succumbs, and no wonder I didn't want her in my room: go away, lonely silent Nell, says my seven-year-old self, go away.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

a little explaining, of the temperate zone

So James unveils his headline ghost in The Ghostly Rental but in The Turn of the Screw he does not unveil, in fact he makes the ghosts as vanishing as they can be and still be ghosts, or perhaps-ghosts, since it might be the case that fragments of the nameless governess' fear are taking on the morbid shapes of people. In The Last of the Valerii he comes closer than he does in Rental to the effect that Laura Miller refers to as "the dissolution of boundaries," but it's the change of narrator that really sets him loose in Screw. The voice in Valerii belongs to a sane character who describes the symptoms of a man who is being gradually won over by a supernatural force but in Turn of the Screw it's the possessed person who speaks, and the symptoms -- I saw a light! -- I heard a noise! -- are all we have to live on as readers. Reject them and we are expelled from the story, we have glanced into it through the window like Peter Quint and now we leave, gesturing backwards at the governess, who stares back at us with arctic fear.

James made boundaries dissolute even on the level of a sentence, and even in stories that were not about ghosts; he liked to allude, he liked to use metaphor, he liked to write as if a source of mysterious judgment was always waiting over a character's shoulder waiting to burst onto the page and condemn them, and so he danced fastidiously around subjects that had done nothing to deserve this fastidiousness -- he could have been fastidious about a man eating a sandwich -- he puts a thousand veils over a bean -- or a thousand mattresses over a pea -- and then he pats the mattresses and says, "My readers, you must be fairy princesses to feel me -- you must be fine." Everybody who reads James is potentially a fairy princess. The veiling even extends down to ordinary character background, the basic information that a less infiltrating novelist would state bluntly and quickly so that they could move on with the foreground parts of the story:

Lady Agnes meanwhile settled with her girls in a gabled latticed house in a mentionable quarter, though it still required a little explaining, of the temperate zone of London. It was not into her lap, poor woman, that the revenues of Bricket were poured.

(The Tragic Muse)

Always this crazy delicacy -- "mentionable" to whom? we never get to meet them yet we're asked to trust that they exist somewhere on a hovering level, a great and formidable They -- and why has London been turned into an exotic continent or globe with this "temperate"? -- and why screen us still further after the delicacy of "mentionable" with "although it still required a little explaining" -- this even finer categorisation of the refinement? (The language is faithful to Lady Agnes' point of view, but it's not as if the author has to step out of his own character to use it. In other words you could say that he's choosing her eyes to look through because they let him write like himself.)

It's as if he's smuggling meaning to us, as if the the main problem he and we face is not understanding, a more normal concern for an author, but exposure and invasion. Why would we bother with these layered disguises if there was not a possibility, a fear, that somebody else, like the creature outside my childhood bedroom door, might come in?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

the one between the mind and the exterior world

In this post I am going to give away the ending of a Henry James short story called The Ghostly Rental.

Once upon a time, I think, there was a character in a book who said, I don't believe in ghosts but I'm afraid of them, which is my position too, on the matter of ghosts, ghouls, spirits, monsters under the bed, and the bland nighttime door behind which hides the strange creature that waits, and never makes a noise, or else does, but it's a small noise -- just loud enough so that you don't know whether you heard it or not, and so you sharpen your hearing -- ssh. When I was six or seven I watched this same bland door for hours and it never gave me a sign to say that it was not dangerous, so I kept my eyes open and maintained an atmosphere of alert and suspicious intelligence, prepared for the moment when the signal would be given, and what form that signal would take I didn't know, but like the judge in the porn case I'd know it when I saw it, and this silent staring competition went on between myself and the door for hours, but only one of us was staring, and the other had no eyes.

And yet I've never believed in ghosts, I don't know why they would exist, and if a brutal murder sets up sympathetic vibrations then why don't abattoir workers spend most of their time dodging sheep ghosts and pig spirits, or is each abattoir closed inside a network of charms and anti-ghost spells that the rest of us don't hear about, and before each shift the workers undergo a careful cleansing, and hang the ritual pendent around their necks -- it contains garlic, thyme, one white hair, and a mysterious ingredient, and if they lose it then they are possessed, their eyes roll back in their heads, they let free a terrible scream, and the person next to them looks around at the noise and says, Not Again Charles, That's The Third Time This Month. They have training videos called, How to Care for your Amulet, and Pendent Health and Safety.

"The literary effect we call horror," wrote Laura Miller in her introduction to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, "turns on the dissolution of boundaries, between the living and the dead, of course, but also, at the crudest level, between the outside of the body and everything that ought to stay inside." Yes, I thought as I read: that is the horror I had, the feeling that something outside might come into the room; I was never afraid of anything already inside, or of anything outside that could be trusted to stay outside, but the sight of the pointed nose or hand around the edge of the doorway would have been the worst moment of them all. I don't know what they would have done once they had crossed through the doorway because my imagination never went that far. It was coming in that I could imagine them doing: they would terrifyingly come in.

"In the psychological ghost story, the dissolving boundary is the one between the mind and the exterior world," says Miller. "The psychological ghost story is as much about the puzzle of identity as it is about madness. " Then she brings in an example from Henry James: "The governess in the The Turn of the Screw yearns to be a heroine, to do something brave and noble, and to attract the attention of the dashing employer whose sole directive is that she never, ever bother him. She wants to be someone else. Without the mission of protecting her two young charges from mortal danger she's merely a young woman squandering her youth in the middle of nowhere." I've been reading Henry James' short stories in order, thanks to the local library, which owns the Complete Stories 1864 - 1874, Complete Stories 1874 - 1884, and Complete Stories 1884 - 1891, and his psychological mysteries were sharp from the start, but his early ghost stories, his horror stories -- a form he comes back to several times -- are not so sharp, and the horror story in which we discover at the end that a young woman has spent two decades or so dressing as a ghost and waiting in a lonely house to annoy her father, is not as strong as the realistic one in which a young man accidentally does something terrible to a woman, something life-shattering, appalling (but of the real world, not ghostly, not Horror) and he reacts, not by caring or even thinking about the thing itself, but by ardently and suddenly wishing that she would like him -- and this is a story with no otherworldly mysteries, unless the young man's heart is another world, which it virtually is -- and his friend, who is also our narrator, wonders at the signs he sees emitted from this strange other planet, he tries to work out what they mean, up to the point of the story's climax, when there is a sort of answer, but not really; it's only the another sign, the most extravagant one, and so we end with extravagance but no explanation.

The young man in this piece of psychological realism is impenetrable all the way to the conclusion but meanwhile the ghost in the other story is unveiled decisively, "I stretched out my hand and seized the long veil," says the narrator, "I gave it a violent jerk," revealing the woman underneath, "not a disembodied spirit, but a beautiful woman, an audacious actress," and like this we're presented by the author with a false spectre of simplicity and understanding, and this down-to-earth explanation seems less convincing than the ghost, which at least gave us the honest anticipation of oddness that we expect from things other than ourselves, unless they are present by habit and then we take them for granted, like the furniture in Proust's narrator's bedroom, with which he associates himself so absolutely that sleeping in an unfamiliar hotel bed sends him mad with anxious frenzy. (Over the length of his holiday a necessary animal complacency is able to reconstruct itself around the new set of furniture and his frenzy subsides, the furniture becomes friendly -- which is what my bedroom door was never able to become at night, no matter how long I looked at it, no matter how long I stayed in the room, it was never familiar in the way that Proust's narrator's hotel furniture becomes, it was always promising horror, it was always about to startle me, it never joined with me, in the way that the narrator's objects join with him and have meaning to him and send out complicated yet amiable signals; it was a predatory door and it lived in my bedroom like a tiger, or like the narrator's girlfriend who worries him constantly because he is paranoid and also because she keeps having lesbian sex.)

James brings in another ghost for a twist ending but by then I was already irritated and it didn't seem to excuse the truly loopy idea of this woman and her melancholy cosplay. Though I reflect that if she's willing to drift around in a gloomy house all by herself at night with the lights off then she's braver than I am. But the necessary animal complacency probably kicked in somewhere along the way, and after the first few years she must have been sighing with boredom, well, well, another night at the haunted house, and perhaps this is the defence of the abattoir workers too, rethink this: they are not wearing amulets, instead they have grown so accustomed to the vengeful squealing of the pig spirits that they yawn at it, hum hum hum, and the ghosts retreat, dispirited by the indifference of their custodians, sagging with neglect as Proust's narrator's furniture is never allowed to sag: the narrator holds the chairs and drawers in thrall, he imposes a personality on them, which they obtain at the price of their liberty, the liberty they might have had if they had been allowed to spend their time alone in the bedroom, unperceived, lazy, and characterless.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

poor finery

When I started the last post I honestly imagined that I was going to segue into the subject of our local library, and not flit around over schools and meat pies and Simone de Bouvier's hair. Have you tried menudo? I did for the first time on Saturday and my appretite curled up at the smell, but I wonder now, after diluting the soup and cooking it some more, and adding lemon juice and finding it edible, if the tripe was underdone and it was the excrement itself I was smelling, sunk and strayed into in the deep tissue of those intestines,* and who can deny an intestine the right to smell like that, when digestion was its original purpose and not the posthumous appearance, chopped and mutilated, in soups, where the filaments that were meant for active purposes instead float out limply in the washy currents, like shag carpet underwater? "Soup," says the intestine, "goes in me; I do not go in it," and it would go on complaining like that helplessly as the universe was reordered around it, while its cousin in spirit is the pig who was executed in 14th-century France for eating the face off a baby, "and why," asks the pig, seriously bewildered, "when it was food like any other food? I've been eating food for years and no one has ever --" It looks at the baby's parents for an answer and sees that they are miserable. "There is something there," says the pig, "if someone could explain --" but it is dead.

M. was tickled when I didn't eat the tripe soup straight away because, he says, I am usually the one ordering a duck's tongue or a grasshopper "to find out what it tastes like," and as I eat I appeal silently to the skies, see, here is something interesting in my life (which is less strenuous than that of the duodenum), I am eating the tongue of a duck.

"Also," I say to the skies, on speaking terms with the firmament, "also, I have read Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen's Barbara, that prize jewel of Faroese literature, which the library was going to throw away." When I tried to run it through the check-out machine I discovered that it had been removed from the system, and the librarians only managed to lend it to me by reclassifying it under this title: on the fly items. We cancelled it, said one of them, because nobody was borrowing it. We were going to sell the book. Someone must have put it back on the shelves by accident.

The illustration on the front cover is a reproduction of a painting by William Heinesen, the same Faroese author who wrote the short story about the two women in Tórshavn losing their house in a storm. Jacobsen is a plainer writer than Heinesen, by which I mean that he never goes baroque, he never spirals off into side stories about ships or ballads or other ideas that might have caught hold of his curiosity. If he considers those things he never lets us know. As I read I was thinking, "If Heinesen had written this it would have been different, I would have heard about the history of Barbara's house, and the private lives of the sailors, and other miniature tangents would have appeared on the story like gargoyles and knobs on an old church, not essential to the structure, but giving the book such a specific aesthetic that finally you decide that the structure is there for them, it is the addition, it is the part you need to make excuses for."

I wouldn't classify those two writers together at all if they didn't have the same nationality; I wouldn't compare them; it wouldn't occur to me. If Heinesen's story is a beast with twenty legs then Jacobsen's is a sleeker organism, running toward a single end, which is the downfall of the title character -- a sad downfall from the author's point of view, because Barbara makes herself vulnerable by constantly falling in love, and he presents this lovingness to us as evidence of a large, eager spirit. "Was there any game that she did not immediately want to play?" one character wonders. She has "lively eyes" that give "quick green glances," often shining or fluttering in translation, "Her eyes shone, she was like a lighted candle among them." She is vigourous, she is physically adept, she volunteers to carry heavy loads of peat in a leyp: "There was no stopping her, she laughed gaily, and everyone admired her." When a shopkeeper offers her a secret inspection she invites a friend along -- she is not selfish, she likes to spread her bounty, she loves to make a situation bigger. She does not lay plots or anticipate the plotting of others. She is an innocent. Exultation is her natural state. "Barbara's eyes shone, her voice bubbled like a spring, she grew prettier and prettier in her zeal for beauty." A new man enters the story and she falls in love with him, and then another one comes along and she loves him too. She's a polyamourist in a monoamourous society. She'd make a good Mormon husband.** But other Faroese gossip about her and her lovers grow jealous. The large spirit will be thwarted by the consequences of its own excess. "[S]ome called her wicked Barbara."

All of this has been sketched in by the end of chapter one, so Jacobsen's purpose from there on is to complicate the idea: he decides that he needs surprises and different perspectives. He introduces an intellectual character who chats with his friends about the merits of an impulsive life, he points out one of the dangers of her openness when the shopkeeper falls in lust and begins to turn people against her, he brings in other nationalities -- Barbara falls for a mainland Dane and then a Frenchman, and we watch as this embodiment of the islands makes love to outsiders while the native Faroese shopkeeper seethes and grouses. (If that makes the book sound like pro-Faroe propaganda then I'll point out that this shopkeeper is Jacobsen's meanest and most bitter, petty character.)

He has a dozen ways to thicken the story (Heinesen disperses; Jacobsen thickens), and there's a good example of this close to the end, when Barbara asks a group of men to help her catch her fleeing lover, and the men agree, even though they know that this particular action she's taking is against the law. And so this extra detail about the law (which would not be there if Jacobsen didn't know something about the concrete environment in which his story is set, and Barbara is an excellent book for anyone who wants to see concrete details of the Faroes leaking into a fictional story, for example, the author tends to shorten the name of Tórshavn to just Havn, as the South Africans I know like to shorten Johannesburg to Joeys or Jo'burg) means that Doom is hanging over this chase. Even if these people reach their object they will not be comfortable, there will still be strife in their lives, they will not be able to sit easily and say, "Good, that's over;" they will still be tense in spite of their success. And this tense half-muted expectation of a threat characterises the end of the book. People are defeated, but there are more problems to consider than the immediate experience of defeat. Life goes on and it will be miserable.

Jacobsen's Faroese live in a landscape of constriction and infinity, small groups kept straitened by open seas. There is water running up against them everywhere, in the sea, or in a river, or a brook, a waterfall, or in a storm, or snow, or mist, or in the peaty ground itself, or on the grass, "They walked in the dew-wet grass," and even inside the houses: "Barbara went to the window and drew helpless drawings and lines in the moisture." "Water there was in God's plenty on Faroe," agree the citizens of Havn as they exchange it with French sailors for wine. The stretches of sea between the islands hold people apart, and so do the mountains, those incredibly high steep peaks; and even the seasons hold them apart. "Their passage out through the long Sorvag's fjord was in darkness. It was a long row that awaited them, which was otherwise almost never undertaken in winter." The rowers are bringing their pastor to Mykines, the westernmost isle of the Faroes. He promised he would visit the Mykines people at Christmastime. They have been part of his parish for more than a year now, ever since he moved to the Islands, and he has never seen them.

Give him flat ground, a road, and a car, and he could have been there fifty times already. But every trip is wonderful, every trip is exhausting, every trip is an effort.

"They pulled manfully on their oars and were in good heart. On both sides dark nesses and frost-covered fells glided by. When they came into the mouth of the fjord they could discern the distant Mykines in the starlight, thrusting up like a single mountain out of the western ocean, shining white at the top. But its sides were black and steep, and allowed no place for snow." The village is excited. "Pastor Paul had hardly set foot on shore before the bell in the little sod-roofed church began to ring joyfully and scatter its tones into the bright morning air. It was a glad day for everyone on Mykines." People crowd into the church and the author shifts us from a panoramic description of the landscape down to the domestic level of the humans, who are exchanging hellos, but we have already seen that the island around them is mighty and inhospitable. "Mykines grew bigger before the bow in the early winter sunshine, flame-red and crude in its wild, jagged might. It was a vision and a terror all in one." Against this backdrop sounds the little ring of the bell.

The Faroe Islands in Barbara are like this throughout: all wildness and constraint mixed in together, small gestures outclassed against vast landscapes. Barbara is the only one who tries to live up to the sheer mad force of these seas and cliffs. The unstable world is life itself to Jacobsen's Faroese, and this life is especially developed in his heroine -- she is more changeable, more physical, more expressive, than anyone else, and yet confinement is necessary for her too. The limited society of the island makes her an object of gossip but it also protects her. When other characters wonder what would happen to her if she migrated to the largeness of a mainland city they conclude that she would become indistinguishable from a prostitute and the author doesn't disagree. In the city the framework of respect and tutting that surrounds her at home would vanish, and she would be ordinary.

From a reader's perspective you could argue that she is something ordinary, that she is yet another example of the literary Wild Girl, one of those old-fashioned nature-maidens, all passion and no brain, sexual without guilt: medicine for the scholar, grandmother to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (Penelope Fitzgerald ponders her in The Blue Flower.)

But Barbara is not any random bit of land, she is specifically the Faroes, and so she is overwhelmed by the French and the mainland Danes, she offers herself to them, she cuts down flowers for their food, and when she marshals the forces of the sea against them (in the form of rowing sailors who "could do nothing else under Barbara's eye" except obey her) she falls short, she fails, the foreigners are larger, they are stronger, they are puissant, they can afford expensive ships, and her bedraggled situation is summed up on the final page in a description of the luggage she thought she would take with her to Copenhagen, "rubbish and tawdry"-- this is the first time the heroine has had this kind of description thrown at her by her author, behold, despair, he deserts her, he turns cruel -- "randomly huddled-together," "trash," "poor finery" -- and here, not in love, is her moment of terrible exposure.

* the stomach actually. I've just looked it up.

** Only a minority are polygamists and the rest disown them, I know, but Barbara likes to marry the men she loves, and if she could only find a church in which wives were allowed to take multiple husbands it would solve a lot of her problems, although the husbands would still get angry when she paid more attention to A than to B or C than to D. I don't suppose it would be a very good solution.

This copy of Barbara (Norvik Press, 1993) was translated by George Johnston. He adds: "The novel was translated into English once before by Estrid Bannister, a friend of Jacobsen and in many respects the original of Barbara. Penguin published her translation in 1948, and it has long been out of print."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

rack and ruin

There are other American pronunciations besides Eye Rack; we know someone who borrows her books from a Lie Berry, a soft and fruity thing with a fine ripe pop. The books taste sweet and none of them tell the truth. She found her nearest Berry in a gated area in front of a school. Windows are not part of the normal architecture of most of the American schools I've seen, just passing by as I do, walking or riding, and whose idea was that I wonder: who decided that students should be blind, and what a horror, what a blank and inhumane thing, and someone should be ashamed of themselves for that idea but probably no one knows who that someone might be, and not even the person themselves, if there was a single person, and not, more likely, a cabal, not a physical cabal but a cabal in the air, a feeling, an impression, a vague message passed to and fro above the heads of children -- ah, it will be better for them if they don't have windows -- no windows for them! -- says this parliament of ghosts. If there are windows then the students will look out and strangers will look in and perhaps there will be a tree, and the child will not look at the teacher or at a book, they will look at this tree, and think, a tree, when they should be dwelling on George Washington or how to bake an apple pie or a hot dog or some other American thing. Then there will be neither apple pie nor hot dog nor awareness of George Washington and the whole nation will go to rack and ruin, to ruin and rack, and after writing that phrase twice it occurs to me to wonder where it came from. Why rack and ruin?*

The origin of rack and ruin is the kind of thing that children do not learn when they have windows to look out of, and trees, and passing strangers leering at them, all paedophiles and tuckshop ladies, or whatever the US equivalent is to a tuckshop lady. The pie was always half-cool and the flavoured milk was always half-warm in my brown paper tuckshop bag but what magic that was, and what an honour, to be the one who was chosen to fetch that black plastic tub at lunchtime, and a practical privilege too, because they let you out of class a few minutes early, and the school was quiet, everybody else still gluing paper to cardboard or writing the letter A, and you ran away from all of that, you and your partner, over the concrete pathways and under the awning.

What a strange unbounding you experienced in this silent mysterious landscape, which had the features of a school but the atmosphere of a deserted battlefield, and as you went on it became apparent that you could do anything you liked and no one would see -- you could climb over the fence and run away forever, or you could sit under a bush, and it was probably at moments like this that the idea of existentialism occurred to somebody -- to Sartre -- thinking the word freedom! as he was sent out to pick up the tuckshop bags with Simone de Beauvoir, who wore her hair wound on top of her head even at that age, which must have been about seven or eight. He let her bear most of the weight of the tub on the way back and she thought, why do all the boys behave like this, talking about themselves as he's doing now, jiggling around and smoking pipes, and why do they all have such short hair? I am the Second Sex.

* Rack and Ruin.

Maybe the schools do have windows, but only in the walls facing away from the road. That's possible. I might be looking at the only windowless walls and thinking that this phenomenon extends all the way around the building, and is it a mistake to imagine that the full nature of an American school building can be discerned from only a single view of the walls? They might have bow windows on the other side.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

trapped in the shadowless valley

It occurs to me that I've been in Las Vegas for a while now but I never write about it -- so -- during summer, which is where we are now -- the sky dominates the landscape, larger than any mountain, more significant, and a massive penetrating pure blue, unstained aside from a thin heap of dirty pillows over to the right hand side of the view, next to a stiff peak (other clouds rise over this mountain sometimes and impersonate it, but they are too soft, too billowy, and the peak is too hard, too straight, too angular, and nobody is fooled) and the air is hot, so hot that even the shade is hot, every atom of the air is hot, and each nucleus needs a drink of water and a rest, each electron spins around with its tongue out. It's nine o'clock at night as I'm writing this and the temperature outside is thirty-seven degrees. During daylight hours it goes up to forty and beyond. But Eye Rack is even hotter, said Skip Martin when we saw him play his horn at the Freakin Frog on Tuesday night, oh yes, in Eye Rack, where he has been entertaining the troops, it goes up to fifty degrees. The troops house themselves in jackets and helmets and the heat is fiendish.*

His pronunciation, the idea of a rack, and a human body part on that rack, and the implication of torture, dragged my mind away to Kafka's short story, In the Penal Colony -- dragged it there as we were sitting in the bar, and the band was running off into a tune that had something to do with the US marines. (The marines have a theme song, M. said, and this was a version of that theme song.) I was thinking of that hot area where Kafka located his Apparatus. "The sun was excessively strong, trapped in the shadowless valley, and one could hardly collect one’s thoughts." There was the Apparatus in my mind, sitting like a small dark house against the overlit sand, which was the same colour as the sand in the southwest North American desert, and the cliffs of the valley were something like the slopes of the mountains in the background here. And the horror of that story, which is a Gothic horror, but it takes place in the dazzling sunlight. Weak and confused people are trapped in a sinister place, and terrorised by a mysterious authoritarian force, which is pretty much the go in Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho as well.

The uncanny atmosphere that a writer like Radcliffe might want to distribute into castles, mountains, cliffs, bandits, storms, ghosts, cobwebbed paintings, and so on, becomes focussed, dark and a single thing: the Apparatus.

In fact the uncanny is really the contact point between these two. They are both unheimlich.

Then the head Officer of the penal colony dies, the Traveller leaves the island, and the suffering of the characters has ended for now, so the story ends too. Thinking about this, and thinking about a few sentences at the end of the second paragraph in my last post -- the ones saying that if Freda couldn't have been made to suffer then James wouldn't have written about her -- and she wouldn't exist -- I wonder if it's not better, if you're a fictional character, to be tortured, to be born into the wrong place at the wrong time, or to the wrong family, or to be poor, or to wish you had a lover, in short, to be unhappy, otherwise who writes about you? And if they don't write about you then how do you exist? A dilemma for the fictional character. To be unhappy or to not exist. And then, when you are happy -- when you are assumed to be happy -- when David Copperfield finally marries Agnes for example, or when Louie Pollit escapes from her father -- your author isn't interested in you any more. Your happiness is worthless, they say, go away, vanish, bring on the next sufferer for my rack, and down you go into the grave, and a new victim heaves into view, ho ho, says the author, rubbing both hands, what a relief --

* He said it in Fahrenheit. There's footage of him at the Freakin Frog online, here, for instance. A great night, if you're in Vegas. They start at about ten thirty, but if you arrive early there's a jazz duo and that's all good too.

The version of the Penal Colony I've quoted was translated by Ian Johnston.